Water is an essential resource for health and survival. We are as dependent on having clean water as the Romans were 2000 years ago. Growing demands on our water supply challenge us to be conscious of how we consume water and ensure a healthy standard of water quality. Because we face some of the same challenges to providing clean water to our cities as did the Romans, having students make connections to how we provide clean water to our urban centers makes sense.
When one more closely examines the situation of both the Romans and we, common needs between our civilizations become apparent. First, all societies must be able to sustain their basic human needs. Like the ancient Romans, we understand the need for a clean and steady water supply. We also know the difference between good and bad tasting water. We make great efforts at times to at least drink water we find most potable. For the ancient Romans this meant being lucky or persistent enough to obtain water from the Anio Valley brought by the Marcia Aqueduct as opposed to settling for water from the Lake Alsientinus on Alsientina Aqueduct. For us it may be buying a particular brand of bottled water or drinking water treated by home filtration systems. Another shared characteristic is that our methods of obtaining clean water developed in a technological, scientific, and at times in an artistic way. Roman aqueduct design and construction evolved from almost completely hidden subterranean channels to more grandiose constructs which grandly entered the city walls. Early Romans were often threatened by invasion; hence the need to hide their water supply lines from enemies. As Rome secured and expanded its borders, Rome's political leaders seized the opportunity to create more open and grandiose waterworks.
The innovation and improvement of the Roman's water distribution has parallels in our culture. While our water delivery system is mostly hidden in an array of subterranean water mains connected to tentacles of copper pipe, it nonetheless evolved from tapping local sources and expanded outwards to serve spreading metropolis. When pre-20th century well and pump technology is compared to current home bathroom and kitchen décor as well as infrastructure for heating, chilling, and filtering water, we see a remarkable improvement in technology in a relatively short period of time.
I would like students to gain an awareness and appreciation of our water supply. I think that we often have the fortune of taking clean water for granted. While many in the global community see a growing water crisis, our outlook reflects expectation that clean water will always be available. Evidence provided by the United Nations World Health Organization indicates that the status of the world's water supply may well be in danger. The United Nations reports that water related deaths and diseases are an increasing human tragedy. More than 5 million people each year - 10 times the number killed in wars die in water related deaths. Furthermore, about 2.3 billion people (more than a third of the world's population) suffer from diseases linked to dirty water. Some 60 per cent of all infant mortality worldwide is linked to infectious and parasitic diseases, most of them water-related.
Of specific importance is the notion that the citizens of ancient Rome and us share the experience of living in rather dense urban areas where sanitation is paramount. Interestingly, because of more or less efficient systems of water supply and sewers, both, the classical city of ancient Rome in general and our cities today can be said to have a rather high standard for supplying clean water and disposing of sewage. Actually by comparison, the Romans may have outdone us in terms of the quantity of water delivered to the city proper and in the efficiency of disposing waste water. In Roman Roads and Aqueducts Don Nardo calculates that the flow of the eleven Roman aqueducts to service Rome's population of over one million could potentially deliver about 250 gallons of water per day per person compared to about 125 gallons per day that a typical water authority can supply the average American town.
Both societies have also demonstrated how to efficiently facilitate water disposal; Romans also constructed crowned roads with raised sidewalks. Covered sewers large enough to walk in were common in busy areas of the city. The Cloaca Maxima, part of a drainage system built by the Etruscans still drains storm run-off from a modern Roman Road into the Tiber. It can be viewed from the Ponte Palatino.
Perhaps it is worth saying that these standards are high compared to woeful accounts of the unsanitary conditions of crowded European cities in the Middle Ages, where sewage flew from apartment windows and waste water pooled in the streets. So aqueducts are a useful avenue to explore how a civilization maintains a high standard of health - more health than the monarchies that arose following Rome's decline.
Additionally, study of the Roman aqueducts exemplifies how technology is adapted to suit a society's need. For in building these aqueducts, a progression is evident. From the hidden and rather crude Aqua Appia to the grand length and volume of Marcia to the directness of Alexandria one can see the refinement of Roman skills in both style and scale. The Roman aqueducts are a great subject to study because they incorporate architecture, math, and history with the study of necessary life resource- water! As is true both in ancient times and in the present, the community without an adequate supply of clean water for drinking and sanitation experiences high rates of disease and mortality. The Romans effectively yet imperfectly delivered sufficient amounts of water to Rome from the surrounding countryside. They improved upon their building technique by developing better ways to gather spring water in constructed basins, include settling tanks, and transverse distances of markedly different elevations. They also improved concrete to seal and strengthen aqueducts. The infrastructure became so vast that the remains of their aqueduct system are still revered for the scope of their form and function.
Today shortages of clean water for drinking and sanitation plague many communities in parts of the world often described as the developing world. By declaring 2003 the international year of clean water, the UN raised awareness to the fact that approximately over 1/3 of the world's population lack access to adequate supplies of clean water.
In a curriculum unit written in 2004, I explored the prevalence of this water crisis. Some facts regarding water crisis and health can be found in appendices 1 and 2. In this unit I seek to address how Roman technologically and architecturally satisfied its need for water and invite students to draw parallels to how society today satisfies its need for water.
My goal in developing and teaching the unit transcends the desire to have students understand the fundamental principles of how the Roman Aqueducts were constructed. Given the global inequities of access to clean water and the emerging challenges of maintaining the vitality of the water supply in developed areas, wanting students to gain awareness, appreciation and respect for practices that allow for the sustainable use of water makes sense. I carry this idea forward from being a fellow in John Wargo's 2004 YNHTI seminar on Water in the Twenty-First Century. The seminar crystallized some developments which are becoming apparent to everyone. Inequities in supply, growing populations, threats to the health of water supplies, and mismanagement of water supplies pose serious health risks to a significant part of the world population. With the price of bottled water making clean water now not just a resource but a valuable commodity, it is necessary that clean water not be taken for granted.
But not taking water for granted means undertaking practical action to manage water efficiently. Moving water efficiently means constructing a suitable infrastructure for water quality and distribution. Knowing something of constructed space and the materials needed to build properly is just as essential as desiring a designed space. My understanding of the necessity of creating architecturally sound structures for moving water to the masses greatly increased due to my participation this year in the seminar
Math in the Beauty and Realization of Architecture.
Martin Gehner, our seminar leader shared copious amounts of his expertise as an architect and educator. Not only did he model excellent teaching practices through his weekly organization at seminar sessions, but he encouraged a supportive and collegial setting through which all fellows could come to learn fundamental principles of architecture and apply them to our curriculum units. Professor Gehner facilitated a view of the aqueducts as architectural structures that conform as do all constructed space to general architectural principles. We explored these principles through weekly readings and three projects. Through our projects I discovered that each material used in constructed space has its own set of qualities that favor its use in particular situation. For instance, a steel I-beam can span a greater length due to its ability to accept more tension and compression, than a concrete beam. Subsequently a modern skyscraper can reach to higher heights with much less material than can be achieved through concrete or mortar. Compare an early medieval church to the Sears Tower or any skyscraper and you will begin to understand the implications of building with different materials. Professor Gehner certainly encouraged us to never take the material of a structure for granted. I learned why stone and a primitive form of concrete were preferred materials for the construction of aqueducts; these materials were effective and available as was a large pool of semi-skilled labor.
So I understand better now how the Romans became master builders of stone structures that served the needs of Roman society well; they built magnificent roads, buildings, and aqueducts on a grand scale.